By Gilly Carr
Joseph Gillingham is best known for his role in GUNS, the Guernsey Underground News Service. His experiences after his deportation from Guernsey are detailed in the 1967 memoir, The Silent War, written by his GUNS colleague, Frank Falla.
Joseph Gillingham was born in Guernsey on 12 September 1901. After serving in the Hampshire Regiment in the rank of private, he left the army in 1935, marrying Henrietta Legg the same year. At the time of the German occupation five years later, he was working as a stoker at Guernsey Brewery and living at 42 Bordage Street in St Peter Port.
Gillingham was one of several people involved in the writing of GUNS. This news service had its origin with four people. Ernest Legg and Joseph Gillingham, through Henrietta, gave the BBC news every morning to Charles Machon, the brainchild of the operation, and a linotype operator at The Star newspaper. Henrietta would write down the BBC 9pm news from her hidden illegal radio, making eight copies using carbon paper. The following morning, Ernest Legg would listen to the 8am news and made additions. The copies were taken into their workplaces by Legg and Gillingham, and another copy would be given to Charles Machon, who would incorporate it into his typed (and sometimes linotyped) news sheet.
Less than a year later, Frank Falla and Cecil Duquemin joined the group. Henrietta pulled out in mid-1943 after becoming pregnant, fearful of the risks she was taking. She subsequently gave birth to the couple’s first and only child, daughter Jean, on Christmas Eve in 1943.
Providing the news to the people of Guernsey was vital after radios were confiscated in the Channel Islands in June 1942. The occupiers did not want people to hear pro-Allied propaganda from London, and it became a punishable offence to retain a radio set or listen to the news. GUNS operated from May 1942 to February 1944. Around 300 copies were produced every day, and these were borrowed and passed around the island. A copy was even passed daily to the Bailiff of Guernsey, Victor Carey. A number of other people were involved in distribution, including Hubert Lanyon in Sark.
The men involved in the news sheet were denounced. Gillingham appeared in court on 26 April 1944, and was given a sentence by a German military court of 10 months. During the trial, he and Ernest Legg (Henrietta’s brother) protected Henrietta and did not let on that it was she who had written the news bulletins produced at the trial. Gillingham was not imprisoned, but went home to wait for a policeman to knock on the door to order him to report for deportation. That day came on 4 June 1944 and the men were sent straight to Germany, arriving at Frankfurt am Main Prison, via St Malo, on 7 June. Legg, Duquemin and Falla were deported with Gillingham. Machon had been deported in April to another destination in Germany.
The only written source of Gillingham’s experience in Frankfurt is from Falla’s memoirs, and we can only imagine that the men from Guernsey were treated alike. Falla wrote that he had to wear prison garb consisting of clogs, pale blue dungaree trousers and coat and a handkerchief-sized scarf. The back of his coat carried the initials ‘JV’ to show that he had been sentenced, so that he would be recognised as a prisoner when working on forced labour projects outside the prison. Falla, Legg and Gillingham shared a cell on the third floor of the prison. The conditions in Frankfurt were grim: Falla wrote about the bugs in the cells, the regular beatings-up of prisoners by warders, and his forced labour in the prison yard, where he had to build air-raid shelters for the warders. While carrying out this work, Falla heard the cries of chained prisoners waiting to be guillotined. In mid-1944, Falla heard that 30 prisoners were being guillotined a week in the prison. He also worked on outside working parties, clearing rubble from the bombed-out streets of the city.
On 4 July, 11 Channel Islanders in the prison, including Falla, Legg, Gillingham and Duquemin, were moved to Naumburg Prison, where they endured solitary confinement, malnutrition and starvation. They were not allowed to send or receive letters, were denied medical attention. During the day the prisoners made clogs in a wooden shed in the prison yard. Beatings and lice were also common in Naumburg.
In February 1945 Falla was ill with pneumonia and so did not record the departure of Gillingham from the prison. Instead, Ernest Legg was the last person to see him alive, and it is to him we must look for a record of this moment. The Germans told Gillingham that his sentence was served and that he was to be released to a civilian internment camp. He was allowed to say goodbye to Legg on 2 February 1945, and promised that when he got to the internment camp he would send word to Guernsey. That was the last time he was seen alive by any of the group. Legg estimated that Gillingham probably weighed about six stone at the time he left the prison.
Gillingham did not return to Guernsey and was presumed dead in February 1947. Although his family searched extensively for him, no trace of him was ever found and it was feared that he had died in a concentration camp or a bombing raid.
In 2016, Gillingham’s daughter Jean was part of a BBC documentary which set out to find both her father and Joseph Tierney from Jersey. The researcher behind the programme, Dr Gilly Carr, had looked at the journeys of other Channel Islanders who had left Naumburg prison and used this to guide a more focused search. One week before filming started, the death certificate of Joseph Gillingham was unexpectedly located in the archives of the Halle Police Prison; his grave was in the local cemetery and had been since the end of the war. Joseph Gillingham had lived for just over a month after leaving Naumburg, and he had been taken to another prison and not an internment camp as promised. On 11 March 2016, exactly 71 years after he died, Joseph Gillingham’s daughter found her father at last.
Falla, F. 1967. The Silent War. Leslie Frewin.
Halle Police Prison archives, death records, ref. Sterberegister Halla/1945/N/18/15
Private papers of the family of Joseph Gillingham
Joseph Gillingham court records, Island Archives, Guernsey, ref. CC14/05 343.
Joseph Gillingham’s occupation registration forms, Island Archives, Guernsey.
Joseph Gillingham, International Tracing Service records, Wiener Library.
Nazi Persecution claim, Henrietta Gillingham, The National Archives ref FO 950/2025
Finding Our Fathers: Lost Heroes of WWII
A BBC documentary about the fates of Joseph Gillingham and Joseph Tierney, starring the daughters of the two men on a pilgrimage across Europe with Dr Gilly Carr.